Sister Elizabeth Prior, MM

Born: February 25, 1908
Entered: December 8, 1934
Died: March 22, 1984

This morning we come together to celebrate the life of our Sister Elizabeth Prior, who was called home to the Father on Thursday, March 22, 1984, at 7:45 p.m. Few of us knew that while we were at supper Sister Elizabeth was on her way to Phelps emergency via ambulance. We were totally unprepared for the announcement of her death. The Community as a whole was stunned. Some had sat with Sister at breakfast or lunch that same day; others had talked with her at some time during the day, unaware that she did not feel quite up to par.

Elizabeth Theresa Prior was born on February 25, 1908, in Providence, Rhode Island, the eldest daughter of Francis and Mary O’Reilly Prior. She attended grade school in Waterbury and Milford, CT and graduated from Crosby High School in Waterbury in 1925. She then enrolled in the New Britain State Normal School where she earned her Elementary Teacher Certificate. Until she came to Maryknoll, Elizabeth was engaged in teaching and teacher training. In 1946 she received her Bachelors of Education from Maryknoll Teacher College.

Elizabeth entered Maryknoll on December 8, 1934, and at Reception was given the name “Sister Maura Shaun.” She made her First Profession on June 30, 1937, and Final Profession (in Baguio, Philippines) on June 30, 1940. In recommending her for First Profession, Elizabeth’s Novitiate Superiors described her as, “Obedient, reliable, pleasant in manner, a leader who does everything thoroughly and well.” These special gifts were evidenced by all who knew or worked with her over the years.

Sister Elizabeth was assigned to the Philippines in 1937. Her first mission was at St. James Academy in Malabon, which at that time was a small fishing town. As an experienced teacher she fit into the setting with ease. English was the medium of instruction, but she studied Tagalog, the dialect of the area on her own, in order to communicate better with the parents of the students and the people of the town.

A year later when a new mission was to be opened in Lucena, in southern Luzon, facing the China Sea, Sister was one of the group assigned. Her teaching skills and love for the people were quickly recognized and appreciated.

At the outbreak of World War II in December 1941, the Sisters were forced to flee Lucena in a small truck. A five hour trip to Manila lay ahead of them and several times en route they found it necessary to leave the truck and scramble into ditches to avoid the bombing and strafing. For the next three years, Sister Elizabeth was among those interned; first at Assumption Convent and later at Los Banos Camp. The lack of food was the most difficult problem for all. Many died of starvation. However, to “keep busy” the Sisters helped teach the children who were interned with them. On February 23, 1945, Sister Elizabeth was among those rescued from the camp by the American paratroopers. They then returned to the devastated Lucena mission. The convent had been used as the Japanese headquarters for that area and had been stripped of everything. The times were difficult for all – lives had been destroyed; just about every family experienced the loss of someone. Buildings had to be reconstructed – school desks and chairs reclaimed from those who had “borrowed” them for safekeeping during the occupation. Teachers had only one or two books for a whole class. In spite of all these problems, school routine and discipline were quickly restored. In the following year, Sister Elizabeth was appointed Superior of the Lucena Mission.

In Jun, 1952, Sister was once again called upon to pioneer the opening of a new mission in Jimenez, Misamis Occidental, and was appointed Superior of the group. The work was with the Irish Columban Fathers and St. John the Baptist College was a complex of dilapidated, termite-eaten buildings in a magnificent setting of coconut trees. Things shaped up quickly and the Fathers could not speak highly enough of Sister Elizabeth’s endeavors to aid the people in the area and raising standards of education in the schools. Small loans were also made by Sister to enable farmers and their wives to branch out into other income-producing works so that they could become self-reliant.

At the conclusion of the Assembly in 1958, Sister Elizabeth was appointed Regional Superior. Her mission life had been spent in provincial areas and she now moved into the regional headquarters at Maryknoll College, Quezon City. The surroundings were somewhat different. Sister Elizabeth took it all in stride. This was a characteristic trait of hers in facing any assigned task. Her tenacity served her well when the Maryknoll Sisters work in the Philippines began to expand to the Davao Province in southern Mindanao. She enjoyed this work and was keenly aware of the opportunities for mission presence in the area.

Always interested in improving the quality of life for the struggling people, in 1968 Sister accepted the Presidency of the Philippine Agency for Community and Family, Inc. (PACAF), a social service agency, initiated by Maryknoll Sister Alice O’Rourke and closely allied with the Social Work Department at Maryknoll College. Sister Elizabeth was faithful in attending meetings and prepared well for them. Her participation was always practical and within the scope that the people of the agency were concerned about: the deprived, the prisoners, the squatters.

When the Novitiate for Maryknoll candidates from the Far East Asian countries was opened in 1961, Sister Elizabeth again exhibited considerable interest and concern for the welfare of those who entered. She rejoiced in their foreign mission assignments and was eager to aid them in any way. She maintained contact with the families of the Filipina Sisters through an annual get-together at the College.

In accord with Congregational policy, Sister returned to the Center in 1975 for service in the Education Department and Library, work that she enjoyed immensely. A few years later she graciously accepted curtailment of her activities. Sister Elizabeth continued to reach out to others in many ways especially with friendship and service to Sisters in the nursing home.

The Maryknoll Sisters Congregational motto, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” found a faithful expression in the life of Sister Elizabeth. She saw herself as servant, and God was the power in her life. Many of us hold particular memories of Sister and all of us rejoice now in her quiet, peaceful passing into eternal life. It is the fulfillment of her quest for God. May she now receive the reward the Lord has reserved for her at the end of her faithful life in mission through Maryknoll.

Sister Elizabeth is survived by her sister and her brother who are with us today, together with his wife and other relatives and friends. To them we extend our sympathy and our prayers.

Celebrant of the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Resurrection is Maryknoll Father Joseph R. Lang.